I received the horribly, sad, news, today that Walt Disney's surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, passed away on November 19 at the family home in Napa Valley. Reports indicate the cause of death were complications due to a fall she had suffered in September.
This is devastating news on so many fronts.
I got to know Diane and her husband Ron Miller through my involvement in The Walt Disney Family Museum, which was built on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco. My friend Jeff Kurtti was one of three creative consultants working with the family on the Museum (the other two being Paula Lowery and the late Bruce Gordon). In 2007, Diane and the others were wondering how to approach the Museum gallery that dealt with the war years. Because of my knowledge of the topic and my related collection, Jeff recommended me to Diane.
Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Diane inviting me down to San Francisco to see what they were up to and see if I wanted to participate. Needless to say, I accepted on both counts.
I will never forget that first visit with Diane and Ron, (and their son Walter), in the family condo overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. After a glass of Silverado wine, which came from the family vineyard in Napa, the trio took me for dinner at a great little restaurant around the corner from the condo. We proceeded to spend a wonderful evening together talking about the Family Museum, and Diane's father and some of the people he worked with and whom she had come to know.
The following day I received a tour of a small museum in an old wooden warehouse on Gorgas Avenue - the old building housed the family's collection of artifacts and mementos. The items on display were amazing. Walt Disney's Academy awards and other personal awards, the Lilly Belle train that Walt had ridden around his Holmby Hills backyard, posters, letters, and much, much more. These items would become the foundation for the new Museum, under construction at the time.
This first meeting led to a loan of 48 items from my collection for inclusion in Gallery 6 of the Museum.
That first trip also led to a wonderful friendship. Over the course of the next six years, Diane and I exchanged literally hundreds of emails and many phone calls. I sent her information related to her father and his studio covering the years 1925-1945. She always graciously responded by saying she appreciated the work I was doing for her and the Museum.
I also located items for her I thought the Museum should have in its collection and on occasion she took my advice and purchased what I had recommended. The last item I brokered a sale for was the Mickey Mouse coat of arms that had been painted on her father's Hyperion Studio office door circa 1933. This artifact had been owned by the son of the man who had purchased one-half of the Hyperion complex, after Walt and Roy had moved their operation to Burbank in 1940.
Diane and Ron were extremely gracious to my family and I. On two separate occasions Diane arranged for comp admissions to the two Disney theme parks in California and several other perks, including a private tour of her father's apartment above the Main Street Firehall in Disneyland.
I was fortunate to have been invited by Diane to the Museum on four separate occasions. My last trip was in March of this year for a presentation I gave on the history of 2719 Hyperion Avenue - the location of her father's studio on the eastern edge of Hollywood in Los Feliz. On the second day of that trip, Ron and Diane took me out for lunch. I always enjoyed my private time with them. She always had fascinating stories to tell about her father or someone he had known or she had come to know because of him. Ron, too, always had an interesting story to tell about his father-in-law or the company he had overseen in the early to mid-1980s. Sometimes I would throw out the name of one of her father's associates and Diane would relate anything she could recall of that person. It's funny because on every trip she would ask me when I was going to bring down my wife and children for her and Ron to meet. She once remarked that she looked forward to watching our children grow up. Sadly, the rest of my family never had the opportunity to meet her, although the kids did send her home-made cards, which she said she loved receiving.
So many memories have come flooding back to me since I learned of her death this evening. I was not the only Disney researcher who had a friendship with her. I was not a confidante or a close family friend. I was just someone who had an appreciation for her father's accomplishments and who had information to share with her. And because of that, she took an interest in me. She didn't have to. But she did. And for that I will always be forever grateful.
Diane Disney Miller was gracious, humble, intelligent, and witty. I will miss all of those things about her and much, much, more.
I once read that when someone you know passes, you should not be sad that they have gone. You should be happy that they had lived. I can tell you I am happy that she lived and that I had a chance to meet her. But right now I also feel horribly sad.
Thank you, Diane, for everything you did for me and the legions of Disney fans who admire your father's accomplishments.
My condolences to Ron and the rest of the Disney-Miller family.
Here are two image of Diane I snapped on my second visit to the Museum, which was still under construction at the time. If I recall correctly, the first image was taken on the Museum's second floor - the big display case with all the Mickey Mouse memorabilia would be on the right side and when you walk through the brick opening you'd be in the gallery where the Silly Symphony cartoons are showcased and where the Ink and Paint samples are on display. The second image was taken in the basement - we were going down there to look at the theater that was under construction.